Neil Shea traveled through Afghanistan for two months this past winter, during what is called “The Talking Season,” when violence slows in the cold and the less tangible aspects of the war—nation-building, diplomacy, civilian life—take center stage. His report appears in our Spring issue. Shea has previously written about Iraq and Cuba for VQR and is a contributing writer with National Geographic magazine.
1. You’ve written about Iraq, Cuba, and domestic American issues, but lately you’ve seemed to focus on Afghanistan. With so much going on in Iraq (and Iran) right now, what is drawing you to Afghanistan?
Afghanistan was the other piece of the story for me. Iraq and Afghanistan are tied so tightly to how we behave and see ourselves as a nation. I first began reporting on Iraq because I felt strongly that it was my generation’s struggle, and I wanted to see how it was unfolding. Afghanistan followed naturally after, and I went there to see how it was different. Afghanistan has also now assumed a new place in American strategy; Iraq is no longer the focus. We’re laying down the chips in a way, making a bet. I wanted to get a sense of how that is really happening. Iran is an important story, and there are many others like it that are important. But if I’m honest, I’m not as interested, at least now. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are closer; I have friends fighting in both, colleagues who are covering both. I also know I can write better and more honestly on topics I understand more deeply, and I have a lot of basic culture in common with Americans fighting in these wars—I can talk with them directly, see into their lives more thoroughly.
2. Have you spent much time in Afghanistan during the spring and summer, the “fighting season?” Does that time lend itself more or less, or differently, to the kind of narrative journalism you do?
This story came out of my first trip to Afghanistan, so I’d never been there before. I went during winter specifically to avoid the fighting season, which is written about a lot, and to see what this other time was like. I was drawn by the fact that I hadn’t seen much good reporting about winter; everyone always seemed to be talking about the fighting season. I wanted to push past that. But I went for a long time to Afghanistan because I hadn’t been there before, and, generally, the longer you stay the better your story becomes.
3. Does your journalistic and writing/note-taking process change when you’re in Afghanistan for weeks or months at a time?
Not really. I just write all the time, during the day, at night before I crawl into the sleeping bag. In notebooks, on computers, in e-mails. What I have noticed is that the longer I stay in a place, the harder it is to stay sharp—to avoid writing the same shit over and over. It’s a lot of effort for me to stay open to new things in certain situations—say when the landscape is monotonous, or the way soldier-civilian interactions are often like weird dances where the moves are always the same. I’ve got to push myself to see things in new ways, to look for the hidden things. And I’ve sometimes got to force myself to write. The good thing is that if I can manage to keep my shit together during a long trip, the story improves—longer trips make better stories. Okay, I think I already said that.
4. Your renderings of some of the young soldiers, who are literally delivering American foreign policy on hilltops in Afghanistan, are restrained and honest. Was it difficult to develop relationships with young men who are consistently under such a unique sort of pressure?
I don’t think it’s difficult, but it does take a lot of time; it’s work. Good, deep stories usually don’t happen during brief trips and soldiers easily pick out people who are just passing through, or who seem like they’ve come just to get into some action. Often there are hurdles you’ve got to get past—the soldiers might have had a bad experience with a previous journalist, for example, and you’ve got to live down his reputation before you can build your own. Or higher commanders might think you’re a member of the left-wing media conspiracy, and you’ve got to convince them that that’s not what you’re about. If you commit to sticking around, soldiers respond to it, they begin sharing things with you, or letting you see into their worlds. They drop their guard, which can be positive, negative, and even dangerous for them. Journalists have a responsibility to think about whether they’re fucking over their sources. Sometimes I think the price of honesty is discretion. People tell you a lot of things when you hang out with them for a long time. Pressure sometimes comes in the weight of what you’re told.
5. You insist in your piece that American goals of stability and reconciliation in Afghanistan may not be possible, at least not in familiar, traditional forms. How do you see the American presence ending there, and what happens after?
I think we will move toward a set of goals that are vaguely defined and often changing, and then, one day, we will declare that most of our work is finished. Combat troops will come home, and groups of special advisors will remain. From that point, it will be easy for the US to disengage. In many ways, the groundwork for disengagement has already begun—the intellectual scaffolding is being built. When President Obama says (and I’m paraphrasing) “It’s time for Afghans to take responsibility for their own future,” he’s using language that also will enable us to distance ourselves from things that go wrong. If large Taliban attacks occur, or the government remains deeply corrupt, we’ll be able to shrug the blame onto Afghans and say that they weren’t taking charge of their own affairs. I don’t want to speculate on what will happen in Afghanistan after most US forces depart; we just can’t know. But I think it’s obvious that if they do come, “peace and stability”—the things we say we want to bring to Afghanistan and plant there—will not resemble what Americans read into those two words.
6. Was there a memorable moment or event that didn’t make it into “The Talking Season?”
One of the things that sticks with me was my own reaction to Afghans. Once, I got to the point of hating them, mostly the soldiers and police. By that point in the trip I’d spent a lot of time around them, and I’d seen them do a lot of silly shit, things that were dangerous to the US soldiers who had the unenviable task of training them. I’d seen guys stoned into oblivion, and I’d seen ridiculous examples of waste and spoil and hypocrisy. One day my patience broke after an Afghan soldier waved his rifle at me, trying to show how it wouldn’t work. He didn’t mean anything by it, it was just a dumbass move by a poorly trained, possibly high teenager. American soldiers were subjected to this kind of thing routinely, and many of them had developed a pretty thorough disgust for Afghans. For a few days after that I felt like they often did—forced to endure a kind of constant, dangerous stupidity. And for what? I could leave; the soldiers could not. It was a brief period and then it passed. I got over it. But for a few days I was stuck on notes like How can we possibly help these people? These guys are the future of Afghanistan? We are fucked and they are, too. It was unsettling.
7. What, as a writer, are you focusing on next? Or what project would you like to tackle?
I’d like to come home and write about America. I’ve been working a lot outside the US, and I think it’s a rich time to return and look at some of the things we normally ignore. I’m not sure what form it will take, or when I’ll actually be able to focus on it. But it’s big country. Big stories. And I want to find a way to do it differently. Standard journalistic writing isn’t that much fun anymore.